AFTER much delay, the KP government has finally approved the appointment of its first provincial anti-harassment ombudsperson. Sindh and Punjab had already appointed their respective ombudsperson since the passing of the Protection against Harassment of Women at Workplace Act in 2010, along with amendments under the Federal Ombudsmen Institutional Reforms Act in 2013. Balochistan is yet to implement it. Still to be sworn in, KP’s ombudsperson, Rukshanda Naz, has over 25 years of activism under her belt, and is undoubtedly well acquainted with the difficulties women face within and outside of the workplace. Her new role will see her working closely with relevant institutions of the state machinery, processing sexual harassment complaints, setting up inquiries, upholding public conduct for deterrence and awareness purposes, making sure committees are in place in both private and public workplaces, etc. Any sexual harassment outside the workforce comes under the Pakistan Penal Code. There are already around 30 reported cases of sexual harassment pending in KP. Upon pressure from an NGO, the Peshawar High Court had ordered an appointment to the position back in September 2017, but there was resistance to it from certain quarters. Opponents cited financial constraints or outright denied the occurrence of sexual harassment.
But the pervasive reality of sexual harassment in its varying degrees cannot be swept under the carpet. More than being just a ‘nuisance’ or affecting workplace performance and attendance, the fear of harassment or potential harassment alone effectively keeps women from entering the workforce, particularly in conservative, ‘honour’-based societies such as ours. But we know that the increased participation of women positively correlates with economic growth and welfare. And on an individual level, to a degree, financial independence often protects women from being at a socially vulnerable position, and gives them more say in their homes and communities. While commentators have pointed out flaws in the anti-harassment law — the relatively ambiguous wording, for instance — its existence has meant some relief for women working in the formal private and public sectors. Moreover, it shows that legislators in parliament take sexual harassment seriously. The role of the ombudsperson cannot be understated in providing the brave women who come forth and raise their voice a sense of security. Then there is the issue of the informal workforce, a large percentage of which is made up of women. Who represents them? What rights do they have? This is something that legislators must consider as well.
Published in Dawn, January 7th, 2019